We are dust, but God breathes life into us; we know we sin, but hear the voice of God’s love calling to us constantly; this is the shape of our journey.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Return to me with all your heart,” says the Lord.
“Be reconciled to God,” says Paul on behalf of Christ.
“Return,” says the prophet Joel, because “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
This is the voice that calls us here today. A voice using those words. It’s not a voice of rebuke, it’s the voice of the prodigal father in Jesus’ parable, longing for the return of a beloved child. It’s not a voice that crushes with fear. It’s a voice that calls hope of bringing us home.
This voice we hear today comes directly from the heart of the Triune God, who longs for us to be reconciled, restored. It’s a voice that, if we hear it, would lead us to drop everything, turn and come home. A voice that, the prophet says, would cause a wedding couple to leave their ceremony, an infant to leave the breast.
Jesus says our treasure is where our heart is. But the voice we hear today tells us that before we know where our heart is there is this truth: we are in God’s heart, beloved, desired. And we begin our journey of Lent with that wonder.
We’ve learned to face our sin and failure in shame, with heads down. That’s a problem.
The Scriptures certainly criticize our lack of love, our failure to bring justice and peace, our hurts that we lay on each other, on our neighbor, on this good creation. Some of that may feel like shame.
But that isn’t how God comes to us, or calls us home. In our flesh, bearing our humanity, Christ always offers welcome and hope, even to those who are doing wrong. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says repeatedly, even while naming those sins we do that are not love as God has made us to love. Throughout the Scriptures the Triune God relentlessly calls us home, cries out in love. Even in God’s anger there is always the heart of God we hear in Hosea, “How can I give you up? You are my child, my beloved.”
We don’t doubt our sin, our failure. We confess them, and will today. We might feel shame, too, along with guilt and sadness and other powerful emotions.
But what the Triune God would have us know is that we are in the center of God’s heart, beloved. And God longs for us to come home, and when we come with our shame, or guilt, or sadness, we find ourselves embraced, given new clothes, and welcomed to a feast.
So what’s the point of the ashes? Aren’t we abasing ourselves there?
It’s actually the opposite. We don’t receive ashes to remember how awful we are, or to feel ashamed of ourselves, or to declare that we’re nothing, we’re worms. That’s not how God sees us. We are beloved to God.
In ancient times the faithful poured ashes over their heads to show their repentance, to claim they were nothing before God. But Jesus suggests those days are past. When we fast, when we confess, when we turn to God, Jesus says we don’t need to do public displays to show our repentance, our turning. God knows our heart, and we can trust in God’s love for us. So we wash our faces and stand firm in God’s love.
But listen to the words said over you today: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We receive ashes to remember that we are mortal, we are dust, and we will return to dust. We realize that we have no strength on our own for life, or for becoming Christ, or anything. We are dust, and if there is going to be life in our dust, it will only come from God. These ashes are hope for us: the Triune God is the one who breathes life into dust and gives bone and sinew and flesh, who raises us up in strength to be God’s love in the world.
So we can’t walk our journey alone.
Our little journey of Lent is our practice for our greater journey of faith. It is a journey where we’re reconciling with God and each other, a journey where we’re returning to God for mercy and hope.
We cannot do this alone. Not without our God who calls us beloved and gives us life. The forgiveness we receive is our life and our hope, because it restores us to God. We don’t have to hide in the bushes of the garden ashamed to meet God, as Adam and Eve; we are forgiven and loved, and can walk with God again.
The grace we see at the cross, God’s love that took on all pain and sin and death to crack open our hearts, is the air, water, and food we need for the journey we make in this world. We are dust, and can’t do any of this without that grace, that love. We can’t confess, we can’t repent, we can’t love, unless we remain in the love of God that calls to us, longs for us.
And remaining in that love, everything looks different.
The joy that permeates today is that the loving voice of God never stops calling to us, the loving heart of God never stops longing for us, and the loving arms of God never stop reaching out to us. And that changes our lives.
Paul says that our lives in God transcend all circumstances. We may look like we have nothing, but we have everything. Our path might look like we’re dying, but we are truly alive. We are centered in the love of God, and that makes all things healed and holy, even if we or the world can’t see it inside us.
Now we understand what Jesus is saying.
Your heart will be where your treasure is, Jesus says.
If we’re already in the center of God’s heart, that’s our treasure, without question. So that’s where our heart is, too. That’s the home we seek.
This is our journey, then:
We are always returning to the God whose love cannot be taken from us. We walk this journey as dust, fully aware of our mortality, but confident in God’s mercy and love, and rejoicing that our dust is breathed into life and love by the God who creates all things.
We walk with each other, reminding, serving, supporting, encouraging, helping.
We walk into the world bearing this love of God, so others hear the same voice, and know that God’s love cannot be taken from them, too.
That is our treasure beyond description. That’s where our heart truly is. That’s where will will follow.
In the name of Jesus. Amen